It is an intriguing past time to look at the old photographs of Jack the Ripper’s London and compare the streets as they were in 1888, at the time of the crimes, to how they appear today.
Some of the streets have changed beyond recognition whilst, with others, it is still possible to hold a photograph of a particular location, showing it as it was at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, and recognise local landmarks and features that are still there today.
A wonderful example of this is Commercial Street.
A well known old photograph of this busy East London thoroughfare shows it as a traffic clogged and very busy street. Today, it is still a busy and traffic clogged, albeit the type of traffic has changed from the horse drawn variety to the horse powered variety!
It is still possible to stand on the exact spot from which this photograph as taken and recognise many of the buildings that appear in the picture, despite the passage of over 110 years.
Look, for example, to the far right of the photograph. There in the distance is, nestling in that corner, is the Ten bells Pub. It is still going strong today and still slaking the thirsts of the locals.
Look to the right of the pub and there is Fournier Street, with the exact same houses that you can see in the photograph still standing today.
Now let your eyes drift across to the opposite side of the road from the pub.
The arch that you can see, almost directly opposite, is Spitalfields Market, which had opened in 1887, the year before the ripper murders, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It is now no longer the produce market that it was in 1888 but it is still an active market trading in all manner of crafts and bric-à-brac.
Now move to the left side of the foreground of the photograph where you can see the sign on the wall with writing on it.
This is the corner of Dorset Street where Mary Kelly, who many believe was the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims, lived and was murdered.
The pub that you see on the corner is the Britannia, which, sadly, no longer exists, but which featured extensively in the story of the Jack the Ripper murders.
Yet, you can sense its lurking presence, hiding away in the far right corner just before the Ten Bells Pub.
It dominated the area back in 1888 and its soaring white bulk still dominates the district today, almost acting as a conduit that connects our age with the London of the late 19th century.
The photograph to the right shows it as it is today. It is safe to say that its appearance has changed little, if at all, since the autumn of 1888 when the ripper murders were going on around it.
What you can see in this photograph, which was taken by photographer Sean East, are several items of street furniture that have, most certainly, survived from 1888 and which provide a tantalising glimpse of the everyday comings and goings on the street on which they stand.
Look, for example, down at the right corner of the photograph where you can see a Victorian horse trough from which the horses that you can see in the black and white photograph would have drunk.
Behind that you can see an obelisk on which you can make out the basin of the drinking fountain that would have slaked the thirsts of human wanderers on Commercial Street.
Although you can’t see it in our photograph, the bracket of an old Victorian gas lamp is still visible on this obelisk, just another item that has survived for the 126 years that have elapsed between our age and the days when the Jack the Ripper murders were bringing terror and panic to the streets that surrounded this spot.
This is one of the rewards of exploring the East End of London today. So many items and buildings, that can be easily missed, come into view when you really start to look at the area as opposed to just hurry through it.
So, if you live in London, or you are planning to visit London, why not head to Commercial Street (it’s closest Underground is Aldgate East) locate the spot from which the black and white photograph was taken, and allow your imagination to transport you back to the busy, noisy and horse-clogged thoroughfare of the past when it found itself at the epicentre of history’s most infamous series of unsolved crimes?